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The Pelagic Bard of Kalypso's Isle
by David Solway

Very little is known about Andreas Karavis, owing to a dearth of public documentation as well as to the poet's notoriously laconic nature. This constitutes a serious and probably insurmountable obstacle for the potential biographer. Most of the official records have vanished as another of the casualties of the turbulent times in which he grew up and matured: the Second World War, the civil war which erupted immediately afterwards, and the violent interregnum of the infamous Colonel's putsch of 1967. To complicate the problem, Karavis jealously guards his privacy, seeming to revel in anonymity and mystery.

Despite the social upheavals of the age, his life appears to have been a quiet and uneventful one, scarcely meriting a curriculum vitae. Yet at the same time, it gives the distinct impression of being crowded with unspecified details and brimming with shadowy adventures, so that what we intuit on meeting him is a curious aura of charismatic power and unshakable authority. Be that as it may, I assemble the few biographical orts and gleanings I have been able to acquire, mainly from my informal conversation sessions with him in 1991 and 1999, to sketch the lamentably incomplete picture which follows.

The Karavis family traces its origins to Sfakia, a warlike and quasi-independent redoubt on the southwest coast of Crete, one of the few isolated regions that contrived to retain a degree of autonomy during the centuries-long Turkish occupation. Karavis' grandfather, Andreas, joined the 1821 insurrection against the occupier when he was only fifteen and distinguished himself by his ferocity and courage, bestowing a reputation on the family name that still survives in the annals of Cretan history. Some years later, the elder Andreas acquired a caique with which he managed to earn a decent living as a cargo carrier and fisherman, moving eventually to the capital, Xania, on the northern coast where he opened a chandler's shop. The poet's father, Nicóla, was born in the early 1870s, the late child of a vigorous sire from a second wife almost forty years his junior.

Andreas Karavis the poet was born in 1932 in Xania, the only child of a, by this time, prosperous ship's chandler from his third wife, Eleni. Eleni was the daughter of a high-school principal and a cultivated young woman in her own right. (Sons born to elderly sires and young wives seem to be a family institution.) His father, Nicóla, extended the family business to include a number of warehouses and retail shops in Rethimnon and Iraklion, and was appointed deputy mayor in Xania prior to the outbreak of the Second World War and the eventual occupation of the island by the Germans. As a wealthy entrepreneur and prominent citizen, he was able to send his wife and son to the small and strategically unimportant island of Seriphos where they survived the war unscathed, the enemy maintaining only a token outpost there. But Nicóla himself was not so fortunate and disappeared without a trace, presumably killed during the first massive parachute invasion of Crete.

Karavis and Eleni remained on Seriphos during the five-year fratricidal conflict which further devastated the country after the war, but which bypassed a number of the smaller and less important islands, a fortunate neglect of which Seriphos was a beneficiary. A modest income derived from rent on property that the mother retained on Crete enabled them to weather out the civil war and to live comfortably, if sparely, during the reconstruction years after the cessation of hostilities. Karavis attended the local gymnasium, which opened its doors after a hiatus of many years, towards the end of the civil war, in Pano Xora, the summit capital of the island. It furnished him with a rather desultory high-school education (but also Ancient Greek), which he supplemented with his own copious reading, prompted by his mother's constant encouragement. He says he was always a prodigious reader and a great lover of books, a passion Eleni's small but stable income permitted him to indulge by providing him with the means to purchase and import from Athens what was soon to become, by island standards, a veritable Bodleian.

After graduating belatedly from scholio Pano Xora, Karavis decided he was too old and too impatient to enrol in university and instead, following in his grandfather's wake, bought a small but sturdy fishing boat to establish his independence, both financial and spiritual. This gave him ample time to pursue a broad autodidact education and to discover, sailing between the islands, that what he loved most in the world was Greek poetry, which he read in its entirety from Homer and Hesiod to Palamas and Sikelianos, and to which he began to feel, what he described to me as, "an almost demented desire to contribute." The years between the mid-fifties and 1967 constituted the idyllic period of his life during which time he indulged his taste for solitude, voyaged as he saw fit and to his personal compass (a little like Kostes Palamas' famous gypsy in The Twelve Words of the Gypsy-nomadic, independent, restless, Dionysian), fished to his own schedule, got to know many if not most of the Aegean islands, read unceasingly, and began writing poetry in earnest, financing the publication of his first book, White Poems (Aspra Poiimata). The volume, which appeared in 1965 when he was thirty-three years old, enjoyed a moderate circulation in the Cyclades owing, as he wryly confessed, to his own "caique distribution network": Karavis, at first, sold books in local harbours and, eventually, gave them away as a bonus with the evening catch sold in the island marketplaces. (It was, in fact, in the dhimarcheion or town hall of the island of Amorgos where I first made the acquaintance of White Poems in 1985.)

At this point, the details of his life and career grow even sketchier, for reasons the poet does not confide. We know that 1967 was a watershed year for Karavis. His mother died in January of that year, and in April, the Colonels staged their coup. Karavis decided to board up the house and leave Seriphos, where his bookish habits and robust sense of independence attracted the suspicions of a garrison constabulary, and to remove to Amorgos, where he lived quietly, plying his trade as a fisherman and continuing to write in his accustomed obscurity. In 1974, when the Colonels fell from power, Karavis returned to Seriphos only to find that he had by this time acquired an underground and unsolicited reputation throughout the region as an enigmatic and, indeed, inscrutable poiitis writing outside the mainstream of the modernist tradition, but somehow indelibly there, a voice to be reckoned with. It was then that he received an invitation to participate in the poetry festival held on Cyprus-an event intended to reinforce the beleaguered Greek presence on a divided island bristling with Turkish arms. There he met the celebrated writer, Lili Zographou, recently returned from political exile in Paris, with whom, it seems, despite being fifteen years her junior, he experienced the major romantic passion of his life.

Karavis skips over the next twenty years, volunteering almost no information except that he divested himself of the Cretan property inherited from his mother, acquiring in this way a modest competence that secured his independence, continued to live on Seriphos, travelled frequently among the islands, then moved to Karpathos in the early eighties, and to Lipsi in 1998. His second volume, The Dream Masters (Oneirou Kyriarchi), was published by Ikaria Press in Athens in 1989 and has rapidly established itself as one of the important moments in the history of modern Greek literature, the subject of many reviews and critical essays in the leading intellectual journals. Poems from this book and his republished earlier work have been printed in school primers and anthologies and recited at festivals all across the country. Although Karavis has given no public readings since the Cypriot festival, the poems have begun to circulate on their own initiative and promise to become an integral part of the cultural heritage of contemporary Greece.


In 1985, when I first came upon White Poems in the dhimarcheion of Amorgos, I knew with growing conviction as I read from poem to poem, as if I were travelling from island to island, that I was listening to one of the most interesting and original voices in modern Greek poetry. How was it that I was totally unfamiliar with this work? Why could I not find these lyrics in any of the Greek anthologies and periodicals of the time taking up their rightful place among the poems of Karavis' peers? I felt as if I were looking at a map of Greece in which one of the major islands had been left out. In the years that followed, I pursued my inquiries and garnered a few unsatisfactory scraps of information from editors and literary acquaintances; but it was only when The Dream Masters appeared in 1989 that I was able, through the offices of Ikaria, to locate Karavis on Karpathos, which I visited in 1991 with the intention of tracking down and interviewing this ghostly but powerful presence.

Directed by the dhimarcheion in Pigadhia, the capital of the island, I finally met the phantom of the Hellenic opera in a kafeneion in the mountain village of Aperi, where he received me with old-world courtesy, listened patiently to the story of my (re)quest, and uncharacteristically agreed to an extended interview. I think he was touched by my ocean-crossing dedication, as unlikely a periplus as his own marine itinerary, and was intrigued by the prospect of an English translation of his work, which he believed would in no way impinge upon his cherished privacy. I spent a month on the island, visiting him almost daily, sailing in his caique on fishing excursions to the neighbouring islands of Saria, Halki, and Kassos, reading and rereading his books, asking questions about the finer points of versification and lexicology, taking abundant notes, and listening to him recite by heart the complete works of Angelos Sikelianos, whom he regards as his master and the greatest Greek poet of the twentieth century.

I have rarely met any literary figure so inattentive to his own productions and so selflessly devoted to the work of another, so fiercely independent (he is, after all, a Cretan of Sfakia pedigree), so oblivious to the beguiling currents of reputation, criticism, and canon-formation, and at the same time so profoundly secure in his own voice and vision. This impression has only been strengthened over years of an intermittent but, stable correspondence, and I was delighted to find him as uncompromising and yet as courteous as ever when I visited him in his new home on Lipsi in 1999. It was here that he permitted himself to be photographed, standing at the bar of the Taverna Taj Mahal that he facetiously refers to as his "second studio".


It remains to try to account for some of the reasons behind Karavis' meteoric emergence as what the critic Constantine Makris calls "one of the magisterial and patristic voices in contemporary Greek poetry". Karavis has laboured in obscurity for the greater part of his life, as much self-chosen as publicly inflicted; but with the appearance of The Dream Masters approximately a decade ago, he has become almost overnight one of the country's most acclaimed and admired writers. The fact of his sudden and unsought prominence continues to baffle him and he has done everything within his means to avoid the public eye, according only one or two interviews to the press and even taking the extreme measure of leaving his home of fifteen years on Karpathos, where he found himself the object of unsolicited visits (like mine), and moving to the remote and almost inaccessible island of Lipsi (named, according to local legend, after the goddess Kalypso, with whom Odysseus sojourned for seven years; Lipsi may thus have been the original Ogygia). His own explanation for his newfound status has to do with the very marginality he has always cultivated. He stubbornly refuses to belong to any school, movement, group or organization, to engage in literary politics, to seek out acolytes, to lobby influential critics or to settle into a single, recognizable voice or technique, as did the Nobel laureates George Seferis and Odysseus Elytis. He is the "resident outsider", as he puts it, the maverick who goes his own way and whose work remains sui generis. (I am reminded here of Pablo Neruda's striking lines: "I don't write to be imprisoned by other books/or the lily's incarnate apprentices.") It is precisely this unique and undomesticated quality of his poetry, he believes, a poetry which cannot be fitted into any canonical niche, that now paradoxically appeals to a readership grown jaded with the standard Greek sonorities and the inflated rhetoric of what I like to call-taking a cross-cultural liberty-the Milton Hilton school of poets.

At the same time, many of that "theoried" generation of thirty-something poets have affected, in opposition to the dominant figures of the recent past, a bland, escorial, and under-nuanced style that trades the future for a momentary réclame among its practitioners themselves. This, Karavis says, has been a most unfortunate development despite the good intentions of these poets to liberate the muse from the shackles of the past-a past always very much present. Karavis' poetry, however, is neither pompous nor trivial. Both simple and complex, primal and civilized, it is relentlessly genuine, singular, rigorous, unpretentious yet intellectually sophisticated, honest, technically adroit, and entirely itself, which may go some distance towards explaining the evident appeal it has for an increasing number of Greek readers today. Even the Academy has gotten into the act. The Philosophiki Skolio of the University of Athens has recently announced that it is "initiating the process of awarding Karavis an honorary degree of Philologia" (or Belles Lettres), acknowledging his contribution to letters and to the life of the mind-a degree which, Karavis remarked with his usual brand of understated wit, he has just initiated the process of refusing.

A second feature at work in Karavis' burgeoning reputation may be what Constantine Makris, who has devoted several articles to the poet in the major critical reviews, has called the "Cycladic factor". Karavis seems unique among Greek poets in writing almost exclusively from "an island platform", a maritime element in which he is authentically immersed and which serves both as his home and as the generatrix of his customary themes. George Seferis, in some respects Karavis' nemesis, has also written many poems from the stance of an islander or seafarer, but this identity is largely assumed and fabricated. Seferis is a sophisticated urban poet who affects a mythological parallax on Greek subjects. But Karavis is the genuine article, a pelagic bard who speaks from the source of an ancient Cycladic civilization even though his roots are in Crete. Makris has gone so far as to speculate that the Karavis family, whose genealogy may be traced for several generations to Sfakia, must originally have hailed from one of the Cycladic islands, possibly Seriphos itself. Curiously, his later home, the island of Karpathos, though a link in the Dodecanese chain, is essentially Cycladic in its flora and fauna and especially in the "flavour" or "taste" (Makris' word is yevsi) of its architecture and culture.

What is it that constitutes this Cycladic flavor or quality? The Cyclades, one of the most beautiful parts of the world, are also one of the most austere. These glorious islands, carpeted in favoured seasons by wheat, barley, and almond, terraced in vineyards and lush with olive groves, are also harsh and barren. Arable land has to be gouged out of the rocky hillsides, water is scarce and rainwater is carefully harvested in encrusted cisterns. Greenery had mostly vanished by the fifth century BC, trees have been clearcut by shipbuilders, and shrubbery razed by the ubiquitous mountain goat. Geologically, one sees a lot of limestone here, a little marble there, divided by sheer granite cliffs. Yet the island people have always been resourceful, weaving abundance from scarcity. As Frank J. Frost writes in the Aegean Review for Fall/Winter 1988: "They planted the vine and olive. They were great seafarers, fishing and sailing from isle to isle, attending each other's festivals where they ate lamb and kid roasted on the spit and danced to the flute and lyre." Such was the pattern of island life as far back as radiocarbon dating of pots and implements can take us, to 2400-2200 BC, earlier than Minoan Crete. The Cyclades flourished, Frost writes, as the first civilized society in the Greek world "while the mainland still slumbered and dreamed dark Neolithic dreams."

These are the qualities that turn up again in the clear, hard, stark, and yet opulent poetry of Andreas Karavis. It is a poetry that is on the one hand deceptively simple and profoundly resourceful in its hardscrabble farming of the lexical soil, raising words and images that resonate with connotations despite their apparent economy of means; on the other, it is a poetry laminated with a complexity of shifting surfaces originating from its unfettered verbal play and an inherent sense of mythopoeic yet topical implication. There is nothing quite like it in modern Greek letters, nothing that quite resembles this perhaps unprecedented mixture of abstemiousness and luxuriance, thrift and profusion-which comprises precisely what has come to be known, after Makris, as the "Cycladic timbre of the Karavian muse".

In fact, the title of his first book releases a kind of ripple effect of implications for the Greek reader that cannot be strictly reproduced in English but that tells us something crucial about the Cycladic character of Karavis' vision and poetic intent. The adjective "white" should in the normal practice of signification render the Greek levka, the proper term in the Greek lexicon for an aesthetic production of this nature. Levka Poiimata is the title that the Greek reader would expect. But in substituting the word aspra, a more commonplace and even vulgar term which suggests the white of plaster and whitewash (asvesti), Karavis is bringing the aristocratic muse down to the level of the quotidian, invoking the simplicity and dailiness, the unpretentiousness of the Cycladic temper that enters into everything he has written. Even the denser and more intricate material of The Dream Masters, whose title now carries us up rather than down-the word kyriarchos ("master" in the sense of "sovereign" or "ruler") giving an impression of elevation and solemnity that the more usual masteras ("master" in the sense of "workman") does not provide-continues faithful to the effect of direct and immediate description of the strange and esoteric topography of the spirit these later poems explore.

In other words, the work always remains anchored in the Cycladic element no matter what its intended subject may be (it is no accident that Karavis has done almost all of his writing aboard his caique), going so far as to set up a paradoxical attitude of defiance towards the metaphysical themes that are nevertheless resolutely addressed by the second book. This may partly explain its astonishing popularity with Greek readers, both among the literati and the common people. Karavis' work thus helps to situate, establish, and render homage to, what we might call, the cycladic self, which the modern world has exiled and forgotten at a cost it is no longer able to defray, but which, with the intervention here and there of poets like Karavis and sympathetic readers who intuit what they have lost, may gradually be recovered and experienced anew. For Karavis, this spirit of bountiful frugality-or, as his summa poem, Saracen Island, puts it, of attacking what it shapes in order to shape what it attacks-represents the only hope of salvation for a world careening towards anomie and terminal misidentity. 

(Copyright retained by David Solway)

David Solway is a Montreal writer who has published numerous books of poetry (most recently, Chess Poems), anthologies, textbooks, and collections of essays (including Random Walks: Essays in Elective Criticism). Forthcoming are The Poems of Andreas Karavis by Véhicule Press (2000), to which this essay is the introduction, and The Turtle Hypodermic of Sickenpods: Liberal Studies in the Computer Age (McGill-Queen's University Press).

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